Elissa Down's The Black Balloon is a tough film to review. It's easy to see that everyone involved has their heart in the right place. They're trying to make an honest film about the difficulty of growing up in a family with an autistic child. When people like Ashton Kutcher or Eva Longoria make completely worthless drivel, it somehow makes a critic feel like they're doing something responsible by warning audiences what they're in for with that junk. It’s easy to do so and, I’ll admit it, kind of fun. But not all bad movies come from the intention to just rob you of your hard-earned money. No, the sad truth is that even the best of intentions can go awry in the filmmaking process. Such is the case with The Black Balloon, a movie that so desperately wants to say something that it ends up feeling forced and disingenuous. It's a film about a supposedly real-world set-up that never feels true, even though the people who made it clearly set out to treat their subject matter and the audience with respect.
The Black Balloon is the kind of coming-of-age story they made more often in the '80s and usually on network television. Rhys Wakefield stars as Thomas Mollison, a teenage boy who is forced to move to a new town with his unusual family. Mom Maggie (Toni Collette) is pregnant again and dad Simon (Erik Thomson) is a little eccentric. But the real chain around Thomas' ankle, at least in his mind, is his severely autistic brother Charlie (Luke Ford). Charlie signs to communicate and only grunts occasionally. He gave up speaking years ago and needs constant supervision. When Thomas lets him out of his sight, he's off down the street in his underwear, barging into a local girl's house to use the bathroom. The girl, Jackie (Gemma Ward), happens to be the object of Thomas' affection at school. Can Thomas find love with Charlie always lurking in the background, causing more and more significant heartache for our hero?
The biggest problem I had with The Black Balloon was the idea that Thomas wouldn't have gone through all of this pain with his brother years earlier. It's not like Charlie just became autistic. He clearly needed care his entire life, and Thomas’ overreaction to a lot his behavior feels like something he would have been forced to deal with a long time ago. Thomas cries and moans about other kids making fun of Charlie. They would have been doing that for years. The idea that moving to a new city and falling in love for the first time might bring Thomas' feelings about his brother to the surface works, but that's not how Downs plays it. It makes Thomas come off like a whining baby. It is undeniably rough to try and be a normal teenager when your brother is so handicapped that he plays with his own excrement, but I could never shake the feeling that Downs and co-writer Jimmy Jack were using those elements for drama, not letting them play out believably or naturally. From scene one, Thomas feels like he's being beaten down by his brother's condition instead of coming to terms with something that he’s dealt with for years. That's not realistic. It's drama for drama's sake.
It doesn't help that most of the performances and dialogue in The Black Balloon feel forced. I never believed Charlie's condition was anything more than a dramatic device. Gemma Ward plays Jackie as a sweet girl but I'm baffled by the casting decision to put a working model in this role. It makes Thomas seem like even more of a cry baby. He's met one of the prettiest girls in the world. Stop your whining kid. Charlie is too extreme, Thomas is too whiny, Jackie is too pretty - only Toni Collette, as she always does, comes off believable. One of the best actresses of her generation nearly makes The Black Balloon worth seeing. But she's not in enough of the film to save it.
Rating: ONE AND A HALF BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: March 6th, 2009
Starring: Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, Toni Collette, Erik Thomson, and Gemma Ward
Director: Elissa Down
Writers: Elissa Down & Jimmy Jack